Churches learn to negotiate insurance after hurricanes

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)--The damage caused by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne has led church pastors and leaders into a maze of insurance claims, negotiations and settlements. Pastors, while still comforting and counseling church members who suffered losses in the storms, also must try to rally church members to replenish church coffers which took a hit from cancelled Sunday services.

Still, most church leaders, in interviews with the Florida Baptist Witness, say the storms have served to unify their congregations and focus their attention on their neighborhoods.

“What could have been really bad is really good,” Shane Stutzman, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Orlando, said. “The situation has pulled us together and made us realize the church is not buildings, but people.”

Hurricane Charley damaged the roofs and windows of the three church buildings on Saturday, Aug. 13. About 50 members made it to church the next morning. Without electrical power, the group sang a song, heard Scripture read, then divided into eight teams to try to help neighborhood residents.

In September, the torrential rains of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne added to the earlier damage.

After paying an insurance deductible of $1,000, the church hopes to repair and replace roofs and water-damaged walls, carpet and furnishings. Tarps still cover the damaged roofs, and leaders are getting estimates for repairs in a process slowed by the number of central Florida residents and businesses damaged by the storms.

Fortunately, the storms came on the heels of a summer in which the congregation gave healthy offerings.

“Thank God for a good summer,” Stutzman said.

Some churches with older buildings that were “grandfathered” into passing building inspections will now have to meet current codes when repairs are made. The historic buildings of First Baptist Church in Waverly incurred about $94,500 in damages after Hurricane Charley, with added damage during Frances and Jeanne. When sections of the roof of the 1950s-era education building were blown off, rainwater damaged the adjoining sanctuary, built in 1926. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne exacerbated the damage.

The 120-member congregation continues to meet in the damaged sanctuary, but the burgeoning black mold threatens to make the facility uninhabitable. Sheets of plastic cover the contaminated areas.

The church’s insurance company maintains the buildings can be repaired, but Pastor David Durham and church leaders disagree.

Although floors, walls and ceilings need to be replaced, the insurers “say the roof trusses are still good,” Durham said. He reported the church has $389,000 in insurance for replacement toward the several hundred thousand dollars needed to rebuild the church to current building codes.

Durham and his congregation, who he said is made up of “people who work every day and are paid week to week,” had been fundraising for three years in hopes of erecting a new building. Now their $66,000 fund may go toward repairs.

“We are between a rock and a hard place,” the beleaguered pastor said.

First Baptist Church in Cocoa Beach, with a congregation of about 100, meets in a building constructed in the 1960s, with a sanctuary that seats 1,500. They benefited from a dramatic wire service photo of its steeple piercing the sanctuary roof following Hurricane Frances Sept. 5. Donations came from all over the world after the photo was published. Those funds, plus an expected $700,000-$1 million insurance settlement will give the small congregation the opportunity to make renovations which the buildings have needed for several years.

“It’s been a difficult blessing,” said Pastor Ken Babington. “Now we have to make the renovations. There is no option.”

Hurricane Frances punched out the stained glass window in the foyer of the sanctuary of Victory Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, permitting rainwater to pour into the building. Every tree on the property was blown down and the church steeple tumbled from the roof. Water damage from Hurricane Jeanne buckled and molded the walls. Although fully insured with a $500 deductible, the church is only now receiving claims information.

The congregation could not wait for insurance money to begin the cleanup and repair. They could not get into the buildings without tree removal, Pastor Joseph Harper said.

Tree removal -- at a cost of $16,000 -- was the first outlay of funds after the storm. They also faced meeting state codes immediately when the four-foot fence around the church playground was downed in the storm. It could not just be repaired but had to be replaced with a five-foot fence.

The cost of the storms took on a human face when the church daycare closed for eight days after both storms. The daycare had no income for the period, and its 21 workers, who are paid hourly, missed paychecks. Several of the workers filed for compensation from FEMA and other disaster relief agencies.

The temporarily unemployed workers at Victory were among more than 75,000 Florida workers -- 1 percent of Florida’s 8 million employed -- who lost jobs at least temporarily during hurricane season, according to a report in the Associated Press.

“It definitely has taken a toll on us,” Harper said.

Emmaus Baptist Church in Pensacola, led by Pastor J.O. Gatson, has yet to find a meeting place after being displaced by Hurricane Ivan. About 60 members worshiped in a leased building that was flooded by both Ivan and Tropical Storm Matthew. The entire contents of the facility were lost, with the exception of an organ, keyboard and speakers.

“The rebuilders basically pushed the inside of the church to the curb,” Gatson said.

The congregation held liability insurance, but no coverage for content replacement. Several weeks of offerings cannot be replaced by the “new believers” who make up the church, Gatson said.

“We’ll make do with help from others, like we did when we started,” Gatson said.

Brownsville Baptist Church in Pensacola is seeing the results of years of investment in insurance for its five church buildings. Its sanctuary roof was damaged in Hurricane Ivan and the stained glass windows destroyed, but the church expects full replacement. Its deductible, 5 percent of the facilities’ assessed value, will be deducted from the settlement.

For many years the church has “paid dearly in insurance premiums,” Pastor John Pavlus said. The congregation also contracted a consulting firm to negotiate with its insurance carrier after the storm.

“We don’t have time or the expertise to negotiate a claim like this,” Pavlus said.

The estimated $1.5 million settlement will cover replacement of the church organ, bought in 1963, at today’s price of $49,000, and the 40-year-old stained glass windows at a cost of more than $100,000. The church policy also covers loss of income, to replace lost revenue when services were canceled.

“We may come out better in the long run than before the storm,” Pavlus said.


Carolyn Nichols is a newswriter for the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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